Coding and Computational Thinking
Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.E. W. Dijkstra
Boboto, promotor or educational initiatives, of inclusion and social innovation, and endorser of Montessori pedagogy since its beginning, is no stranger to the progress of language, be it verbal, mathematical or non-verbal. And, in keeping with the natural flow of its development, it could certainly not ignore coding, the new language of competency which has been widely discussed on an international level in the last decade and particularly here in Italy in the last few years.
One of the most interesting ways to develop computational thinking is through programming in the context of play. The word play is absolutely not intended to mean something frivolous. “The opposite of play is not that which is serious, rather that which is real”, infact Maria Montessori says: “In order to teach we must excite. However, many still believe that if you enjoy yourself, you don’t learn.”
Playing is, by definition, inherently educating: indeed, it is through play that children learn about their world, they experiment with the value of rules, acquire social skills, and learn to handle their emotions. They also discover new paths towards autonomy, and experiment convictions about concepts and other people through trial and error.
Our idea is to provide both individual and group programming courses to develop and practice computational thought, which guide children in the use of technology in a mindful, active way to experiment with new contexts and modalities, to reflect, cooperate, learn, and to encourage creativity.
Part of our work is inspired by the DQ Institute, a global organisation which promotes the development of Digital Intelligence (DQ). DQ is the “sum of social, emotional, and cognitive abilities essential to digital life. It is having the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities to adapt one’s emotions and adjust one’s behaviour to deal with the challenges and demands of the digital era”. We firmly believe that nowadays it is not enough to just learn an active way to utilise technology, rather that these abilities must be rooted in “human values of integrity, respect, empathy and prudence”.
We aim, in addition to teaching boys and girls an active use of technology, to make them aware of the dangers of the network but mainly to the construction of an ethical framework and their capacity building to assess the reliability of the wealth of information to which we are all now subjected.
DQ Institute identifies the eight fundamental aspects of digital citizenship which children need in order to effectively, safely and responsibly use digital media and technologies before they can contribute to the digital world as active content creators, knowledge and skills which Boboto also promotes as part of its own activities.
- Digital Citizen Identity
- Screen Time Management
- Digital Footprint Management
- Cyber Bullying Management
- Digital Empathy
- Critical Thinking
- Privacy Management
- Cyber Security Management
These children are the first generation born and raised in a digital world, and they need to learn digital skills for the future, but they are often left alone to navigate the negative side effects of technology.Yuhyun Park
Our coding lab may be added to either a school curriculum or adopted as an extracurricular activity and, by fostering motivation, it allows the following:
- to reach specific learning objectives
- to acquire transversal skills
- to valorize each individual’s talent
- to maximise the capacity for attention, concentration and memory
We offer robotics activities and coding unplugged, technology-free activities ranging from engagement with small robots (Cubetto, Ape bee-bot, Doc, etc.) to pretend-play, in which children impersonate both ‘robot’ and ‘programmer’. Block program software, such as pc-based Scratch, is used with a support kit such as LEGO WeDo. Children are taught through the Montessori mind-set “help me to help myself”, which stimulates their creativity and imagination, and helps them solve problems by reaching a set of predetermined goals. All of our courses are carried out with the notion of learning-by-doing (and playing) and cooperative learning, as Maria Montessori intended 100 years ago.
Our lab activities enable enriched training through motivational delivery in the following areas:
- specific learning objectives
- to acquire transversal skills
- to valorize each individual’s talent
- to maximise the capacity for attention, concentration and memory
Activities are used as stimulus to encourage children to reflect on and experiment with possible solutions, and the teacher, along with the programmer, will take on the role of facilitator. Interesting possibilities are available in terms of linguistic scope, too. These activities present good prospects for the building on and reinforcement of children’s knowledge of English as a second language, and a range of materials may be presented and made available in their original language (English): videos, lines of code, lessons, etc.
Activities presented are, above all, unplugged (technology-free) to motivate and develop computational thinking, with the intention of stimulating creativity and imagination. Through this development children are better equipped to describe the constructive procedures which bring about the solution to the problem presented during the activity, or indeed a useful idea, all of which benefits the acquisition of language skills and logical-mathematical competency.
Boboto also promotes training for educators of children and for teachers.
We believe it is responsibility of the school to encourage students to use technological means in an active and conscious manner and to experiment with new ways and new contexts to reflect, cooperate, develop creativity and learn.
"Which end should education serve, if not to help human beings learn about the environment to which they should adapt?"Maria Montessori
Let’s take a look around us, what is this environment to which an educator must help his or her students adapt, outside of the classroom walls? It is an environment made up of people, relationships, nature, objects, skills and knowledge. Included within these objects and this knowledge we also find technology. Can we, therefore, continue to not actively teach its purpose, allowing it to become simply something we passively use?
We live in a world in which we use an enormous amount of technologyand we have increasing access to every category of information by means of internet access. We see children who are already passive users of what some call ‘technological contraptions’ at a very young age. In spite of this, the actual skills’ development connected with information technology continues to have very little relevance in terms education.
Moreover, the speed at which technological progress advances continues to increase, and tomorrow’s adults will need to possess certain digital literacy skills in order to face these changes and benefit from them in their work and their daily lives.
Many people maintain that the introduction of programming is fundamental in providing children with the foundation on which to build “tomorrow’s world of work”. This may carry a certain weight with it, but we don’t believe it to be the main or primary focus. We can’t speculate with any certainty who, or how many, will become future computer scientists, but we can certainly try to develop a passion for a subject which is already a constant fixture in employment and indeed in daily life, and which often, in particular at university, gets dismissed. We should always remember that the aim of schooling should be to cultivate the intelligence and talents of every single member, providing every student with the right set of skills and knowledge to go out into the world. Mathematics is taught regardless of the fact that many will or will not become great mathematicians; as is the case of literacy and other subjects. We all began by learning letters, then we made words, then a sentence, then we wrote an essay: but we all began with something simple and tangible.
At this point, refusing to take on this challenge would be contradictory; it would mean not accepting that even though it may not be strictly indispensable, allowing children the means to understand technology and its very own way of thinking, even if at an elementary level (at it is exactly this which interests us), could give them the opportunity to be amongst those who program in order to create something rather than simply clicking in order to use. Could it be, for example, and interesting way to approach Information Technology lessons in primary school, with the aim of maybe even developing research projects in other curricular subjects to expand a more interdisciplinary curriculum?
Maybe it would be better if children (and adults too) began to see technology not as a magical product able to carry out the incredible, designed by some unparalleled genius, but rather a product of man’s intellect and research, just like any other object. Children have always had the opportunity to write stories, as if they were true writers, so why not bring this simplicity to scientific and technological subjects, too?
"It is difficult to imagine a way to truly understand technology if not by studying, in some way and on some level, programming, which allows us to experience just how the comprehension of a solution to a problem at a suitable level of abstraction is a typically human process"G. Salmeri
In these last two years, even if it has been around for over ten, we have been hearing more and more about coding and computational thought and whether, and indeed how, these topics should be introduced into the classroom.
In reality, Montessori schools struggle to implement a curriculum which includes robotics or programming; this could be due to the general assumption that digital technology is entirely unrelated to Montessori methodology and seems out of place next to more traditional Montessori materials. But the question is being debated more and more often and some institutions are moving towards an approach which may be effective in integrating programming into its fundamental concepts. The American Montessori Society, for example, has taken a firm stance in favour of the new technologies in schools and encourages their use in order to promote digital literacy and the skills needed by the 21st century learner.
The need to research a new, integrated model has become tangible: the aim is to allow technology to support and integrate the study of different disciplines within a Montessori framework, becoming an tool with which to study and to discover. Our robotics kits or actual robots (LEGO WeDo, Cubetto, etc.) have characteristics that allow for hands-on interaction between the child and manual experience. Additionally, these kits are self-corrective, therefore integrating the important aspect of error control by giving the child the possibility of practising and experimenting alone, while stimulating senses such as touch, hearing and sight. The technological equipment proposed by the teacher, used responsibly with clear objectives, should become a useful classroom tool.
Although children up to 6 years of age need to experiment each learning activity manually and sensorially, this does not exclude the use of technology. Consider that the logical sequence that we find in the actions carried out for the correct use of a certain classroom learning material is the same when applied to an activity of technological programming. In a primary school, an IT lesson could include time dedicated to programming and information research, building on terminology for a more in-depth understanding and teaching the correct and most efficient way to carry out research, in an era in which the majority opts for the ‘copy and paste’ approach, and above all, teaching the distinction between true information from fake. This could be a possible beginning of a cross-curricular ‘contamination’ of subjects, a practice which should already take place in a Montessori school.
Technology provides other tools and other ways to make discoveries and, if taught correctly from the beginning, will be utilized to provide support for human difficulties and to find solutions to otherwise impossible problems. Moreover, experimental projects are already running in Montessori primary and middle schools internationally, one of which has been exploring environmental sustainability via means of visual programming. For all of these reasons, we consider the need for a guide in the use of technology in schools fundamental.
Carrie Schneider, the Director of Knowledge Design Getting Smart, supports the integration of technologies and describes the intersection between Montessori and digital learning as follows:
"Both high-quality digital learning and Montessori education prioritize the personalization of learning and create systems that allow for customization of content and instruction"Schneider
Technology is an important part of our society and one that our children will inherit. Our job as adults is to not allow technology to overwhelm our children: we have to make sure that they use it as active rather than passive learners. Robotics can offer a new way of teaching content in the classroom, and technology can be a precious tool of communication while upholding traditional Montessori values. In the Montessori model, the addition of any type of new material must always aim to foster the development of the child: this is also true of technology.
It is therefore necessary that parents and teachers alike become conscientious while teaching their children to utilize technology: they must model an adequate and responsible use of it so as to prevent the damaging effects that can derive from the free access to all types of information.
An unchecked use of technology by children can also be disciplined through coding: by developing computational thinking, complex systems of thought can be supported, and fantasy and creativity can be developed.
We believe that the coding approach presents several similarities with the educational approach of Maria Montessori:
- hands-on experimentation
- dexterity with materials which allow the error control
- possibility of trial and error activities that allow for new solutions
- learning as discovery
- working in autonomy without the help of an adult
- customization of the learning experience
- development and strengthening of creativity and logical processes
- development of concentration, attention and precision
Learning the Montessori method and the implementation of its materials takes training. Similarly, we should be trained to provide a careful and watchful guide for the appropriate application of technology in the classroom, one that should be thought of a means of learning for children: it should be perceived as one of materials of learning, not as an end in itself.
In the book The Formation of Man, Maria Montessori divides language into three branches: spoken language, writing and reading. She describes spoken language as being naturally developed and refers to written language as a "superior form of language” in evolution. She writes:
"The civilization of our days cannot make progress among people who possess only spoken language, and illiteracy becomes, therefore, the greatest obstacle to progress."
Of course, computer programming did not exist during Montessori's time. Her thoughts on the written language should, however, lead us to consider if coding might be the language necessary to the culture of our times and if illiteracy in the field of computer science might be the current greatest obstacle to the progress of humanity.
"Language touches both nature and the history of humanity. A new language is a natural phenomenon"Maria Montessori - Creative Development in the Child, vol.1
Coding is an English word which indicates “the activity of writing a source code”, and therefore the drafting of an informatics program; the source code is written as a body of text, so knowledge of grammar and lexis are required. In Italy, nowadays, the term coding is used to define the activity of introduction of programming to children, both via unplugged exercises (technology-free activities), and visual programming language (e.g. Scratch, Snap!), in which it is possible, but not necessary, to write code. The term programming has a meaning which is much more vast given that it includes analysis, organisation, planning and testing, as well as the writing of the source code.
Einstein said: «If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution». And what is the definition of a problem, if not the analysis, organisation, planning and testing of a situation, in order to find the solution?
The activities of introduction to programming envisaged for children don’t foresee the true drafting of a code, but the development of other competencies, such as that of computational thought.
All too often it is understood that programming and computational thinking are closely linked to the use of a computer or other technological equipment, but this is quite untrue.
"Edsger Dijkstra, structured programming theorist, ran his courses without ever allowing his students to touch a computer, without ever touching one himself, and underling that the accuracy of a program should be illustrated with a pen and paper, as one would with a mathematical theory"G. Salmeri
In 2006 the scientist Jeannette Wing, director of the Department of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, brought “computational thinking” to the forefront of the academic and scientific communities.
The actual term, “computational thinking”, was first used by Seymour Papert, a South African mathematician, computer scientist and educator and father of constructionist movement in education, a variation of contructivism. In his seminal book, Mindstorms, Papert affirms that programming develops sequential intelligence and procedural thought, teaches how to reformulate problems by decomposing them into smaller and more manageable segments, and helps find errors if the method does not work.
With these presuppositions we can certainly say that computational thinking is also used outside of an essentially technological context, but remains internal to a logical-mathematical context, and we truly believe that the development of such would prove to be a very useful ally in education.
Jeanette Wing believes that computational thinking is the one indispensable skill that everyone, not just computer scientists, should learn as it can be applied to everyday life. She demonstrated that computer science brought innovation in the way we think. We should add that a precise and commonly shared definition of computational thinking still does not exist. We can certainly say that many agree with Wing’s theory, by which computational thinking exists independently from a computer. Wing defines it as: «The effort that an individual must make to provide another individual or machine with only all the necessary instructions in order to carry out a given task».
Computational thinking is a process of mental procedure involved in the formulation of problems and their solutions so that they can be represented in such a way to be easily carried out by a computer or human. It has characterisctics of abstraction. It is an intelligent and creative way of thinking, which brings into play the concepts and approaches of problem solving, life management and communication.
Jeannette Wing suggests that we should look to computational thinking as the fourth basic ability, together with reading, writing and arithmetic. If written and spoken language is used to communicate, and mathematics used to quantify, computational thinking is used to elaborate information correctly and efficiently and to explain, in a clear yet elaborate manner, how to carry out a task.
The invention of the printed press has allowed for the first three basic skills; the diffusion of technology should allow, according to Wing, for the fourth skill: the diffusion of computational thinking.
We should therefore consider it a new skill to teach to every child, every boy and girl from preschool to secondary school.
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